It was 1938, and Germany and Austria had just merged, to the delight of most Germans… and Austrians. Among the undelighted were Austria’s Jewish minority, not only the out-of-the-frying-pan refugees from German persecution, but also the native Austrian Jews. Like the Jews of Germany, the Austrians considered themselves patriotic citizens and were highly assimilated into the national culture and well-represented in the professions.
They all knew that staying in Nazi Germany would be bad, although nobody knew how bad. While they tried to arrange emigration — something that required large bribes paid to various Nazi people and organizations — they reacted as men under terrible stress have always done, since time immemorial.
They joked about it.
Those of us who contemplated emigration were certainly not in any mood to laugh. And yet perhaps nothing encapsulates the tragedy of our situation–and also the world’s indifference to our fate–better than this little selection of anecdotes that did the rounds among Viennese would-be émigrés at that time. Gallows humour of the Emigration.
Three Jews, who are considering emigration, meet on a street-corner. ‘I’m going to England,’ says the first. ‘I’m going to America,’ says the second. ‘And I’m going to Australia,’ declares the third. ‘Such a long way!’ cries the first, in amazement. To which the one destined for Australia simply replies: ‘A long way from where?’
We didn’t quite get that, or find it funny. But the comedian can be forgiven a certain degree of performance anxiety. Underlying these emigration jokes is the cold fact that England, America, and Australia were not at all anxious to give immigration visas to threatened Jews, particularly as the Nazi regime would ensure that they were stripped of everything they owned in the emigration process, and arrived penniless and dependent.
On to the next joke. They get better (and bitter).
Four Jews, this time. The same old question about destination. The first replies: ‘China.’ The second: ‘New Zealand.’ The third: ‘Bolivia.’ ‘Well,’ says the fourth, ‘I’m staying here.’ The others look at him for a moment in silence. Finally one says, in a tone of admiration: ‘My God: that is adventurous!’
The poor fellow, of course, had no idea.
And finally: one Jew, who has walked his feet sore in the futile effort to get hold of some kind of visa, finally goes into a travel agency. ‘I must get out,’ he tells the man at the desk, in desperation. ‘But where to, where to? Can you give me any advice?’ The man fetches a globe. ‘Here,’ he says, ‘here you have all the countries in the world. You must be able to find something here.’
The Jew turns the sphere this way and that for a long time, shaking his head the whole time. Finally, crestfallen, he puts it to one side. ‘Well,’ says the man behind the desk, ‘what have you found?’ ‘Oh, sir,’ says the Jew very diffidently, ‘you wouldn’t possibly have another globe, would you? There’s no room for me on this one.’
In this postwar memoir, hidden away for decades and only translated and published recently, the author quickly shifts from the black humor of 1938 to the black despair of retrospect:
To this day I cannot rid myself of a feeling of bitterness, when I think of the endless forest of red tape that was put in our way by most states at that time, as we begged for visas. With a little good will, it would have been possible to save everyone.
Meanwhile Goering–the stout, jovial Goering–had announced even in those days, in Vienna: ‘For Jews who are not able to leave, there are only two possibilities: to die of hunger or to be rooted out by fire and sword.’
The author of that was a newspaper man — until the Anschluß, which fired him — and Viennese man of culture and letters, Moriz Scheyer. It is telling that the only pre-1945 photograph of Scheyer to come down in his family is the one fastened to his press pass to the celebrated Vienna Opera.
Unlike so many of the wearily joking Austrian Jews of 1938, Scheyer survived to live free in France, but only after the swastikas were crushed, dynamited and burnt, along with many of the great cities of Europe, by the mighty forces of many nations. He wrote his memoir Ein Überlebender (“A Survivor”) while being concealed from the Nazis in the Convent of Labarde, Dordogne, and he revised the work — once — after his liberation.
The book recounts many close calls, narrow escapes, and dreadful discoveries. But the essence and despair of it is in a sentence you have already read, and we shall repeat:
It would have been possible to save everyone.
Had someone stood up to Hitler, over the Anschluß (unlikely), or over the Rhineland or Czechoslovakia, “everyone” who might have been saved might have been a very high number indeed, not a “mere” six millions. Certainly, had the West truly understood that the Austrian Jews were fated for the disposal that would be formalized four years later at Wannsee, they’d have done something, but the primitive barbarity of the Holocaust was sui generis in modern times.
As you see in the interactions today of great powers with small tyrants, there is always a reason not to act. And if you see the outcome of attempted interventions, there’s always a question as to whether it would have been better, as a net-net humanitarian matter, to let the situation be.
Scheyer’s book’s single manuscript came into the hands of his (ultimately British) stepson, Konrad Singer, who thought it too bitter to publish, and destroyed it. Only years later did Konrad’s son, Moriz Scheyer’s grandson, P.N. Singer, in a project to record family history, find a second copy, nearly forgotten in the attic of a relative. Singer translated and published Ein Überlebender in English, under the title Asylum. It is a remarkable story of survival — Scheyer, his wife Grete, and their longtime family nanny Sláva all survived together, thanks to the Sisters of the Convent among others — but it’s also a look at a remarkable time in history from a unique viewpoint, told by one of history’s unwilling participants.
Moritz Scheyer did not survive for many years after the war (P.N. Singer has been very helpful with an explanatory list of characters and an epilog in the book), but he died a free man in a free country, and that is something. The world is fortunate that he, and his remarkable and unique manuscript, survived.
This is a link to the Kindle edition of Asylum. From that page you can find other editions, and it’s available cheap as a used book.